Talking with Thomas Dolby: 2012 Moog Innovation Award Winner

We had the pleasure to sit down with Thomas Dolby last week in England to deliver his custom Minimoog Voyager XL. Dolby talked with us about his experiences with Moog synthesizers, his musical process, and his history with many different musicians.

When were your first experiences with Moogs? When did you first get the opportunity to experiment and play with them?

There tended to be Minimoogs lying around professional studios round-about the end of the 70's - 76-77-ish when I first got into studios. And when the Micromoog came out I picked one up second hand out of the back of Melody Maker. And that was the first off-the-shelf synth I'd owned. Before that the only synth I'd owned was a Transcendent 2000.

Ah, that's the DIY one isn't it? 

Yeah. And I didn't have a keyboard for it. So I could sort of generate tones but that was about it. I remember hooking it up to the keyboard from an ARP.


That's very old school - in the sense of using it as an oscillator bank.

Yeah. So I was familiar with Minimoog but the Micro was the first one I could afford. And the next one was the Source. And for a while I had a three piece band, and I was basically playing the Micro and the bass player was using the Source.

And so I've used Mini's a lot over the years but never owned one. The first serious recording I did with one was on the Foreigner "4" album. I remember Mutt Lange had left for the night, and left me for the night like a kid locked up in a toy shop. And I had six tracks and had to make an intro for "Waiting for a Girl Like You".


And so I made some sort of Eno-esque ambient drones on the front of it. And to my amazement, it stayed! It was quite an odd feeling traveling around in the early eighties and hearing AOR Radio playing this sort of out there…

...Ambient, experimental thing!

Yeah, it felt quite subversive at that point.

That was at Electric Lady in New York, and actually I don't think they had the kit, but they left me a sort of take-out menu of stuff I could order, SOR or whatever, and they'd come back in the morning and I'd have filled up the tracks they gave me. And we worked that way for a month basically.

Were you playing Moogs in your work with Lene Lovich?

Yeah - I had the Micromoog then. I think at that point my kit was that and a Roland JP4, one of the first polyphonic synths.


With "Golden Age of Wireless" were Moogs used on that?


There's quite a lot of Micro on there. I think while I was in possession of the Micro I didn't tend to rent Minis. I did quite a lot of double tracking of things. I'd quite often play a part in twice and split them left and right.

Whatever happened to your Micro? Did it move on to the great gig in the sky?

I think it did yeah. I think when the ribbon wore out, you start getting metal rubbing off on your finger tips, I think it was time to move on!

Can you talk about the Flat Earth, and with the instrumentation were Moogs important? Were the synths important?

Yeah, definitely something that springs to mind was on the track "Mulu The Rainforest" - in the middle where there's a chord sequence. And there's a sort of two-octave arpeggio going on. And I had one of the oscillators tuned to the root note. So in spite of the bass changing on the octaves there was this constant drone which obviously creates this nice sort of interaction.


Can you talk about performing "The Sole Inhabitant" at Moogfest 2007? that time I was enjoying the convenience of soft synths. So practically everything in that show was coming off a Mac G5. And I'd started to use plug-ins. And it's not quite the same thing but you get a touch of the flavour of the old sounds. 

I guess that leads us to the last question - how would you see this new Voyager XL fitting into a very software based world?

Yeah I think it's largely a question of whether you write or record 'in the moment', or whether you have a continuum of building. Very often from the initial spark of an idea for a song, through to a finished master, I have this sort of continuum. And I might work on it for a couple of days, and then leave it alone for a couple of weeks, and then come back and do a bit more. Write some lyrics, cut and paste it, edit it a bit more. And eventually one day - it's done. And I'll bounce it down and that's it.

And that's one way of working. And the nice thing about that with soft synths is you can have half a dozen of those going at the same time. You're getting away from the fear in the old days of "It's like 4 o'clock in the morning, but if I leave it now it'll never be the same again".

And that's a blessing and a curse, because the advantage of working like that is it made you very deliberate in what you were doing. It stopped you from being very experimental but it meant you made very deliberate decisions about things because there wasn't much going back and unraveling things. And that can be a very healthy thing. Sometimes you can have too much choice.

And the luxury of being able to leave things, hit save, close it up and know you'll come back to it in the future, sometimes gets you off the hook, creatively. 

And so there's a lot to be said for being in the moment. And I think this applies to synthesis but also to musicians. I really like doing tracking dates with four or five musicians. Because they come in and for the first hour they're hugging each other and telling stories about touring in 1985, and then they get hungry and want to order a curry; and you're like "Come on guys, you ought to tune up at least". At that point you know you've probably got another two or three hours and then they're going to start losing energy - and there's this sort of magic window in which it all has to happen. Or else the moment will be lost, and there's something very special about that.

It's expensive, people are getting paid, the studio is expensive, but by midnight you're going to have something. And there's something very special about that, which you can't replicate in the computerised world, where you have too many options.

So probably what'll happen with the Voyager is that I'll dive in, and of course I won't read the manual. And I'll come up with something amazing, and be like "Oh god, what do I do, if I hit the wrong button I'm gonna lose it forever"…and I'll be like "Well I might as well record it like this".

Well, you can save presets on it, but true that you can't with the patch cables in!

Ahh, OK, all right! Well that's good to know, see I wouldn't have known that!

I think the immediacy of hardware is half the fun. There's also a lot to be said for the tactile experience of interacting with an instrument, with a mouse there seems somewhat less incentive.

Oh yeah, no question.

You have two hands and you explore things in a different way.

Also, muscle memory. You know, I've been playing Moogs for thirty-something years. And if I go out there now and I play a sound, and it needs a bit more resonance, I'm just gonna nail it. Like that. And it's partly muscle memory and it's partly the Moog interface.

It's familiarity with the design concept behind it, which has been very consistent throughout. So if I don't play it for a year, I'll come back to it and just settle right into it. Whereas with a soft synth you're fipping through pages, and sub pages, and parameters. There's no real need when you're designing a soft synth to have the flow be that way. 

So many of them sacrifice that for power and flexibility. But that makes it harder to relate to the personality of a soft synth. So I found over the years, I've got things crated up in flight cases in storage, and if they've got a knob for each parameter, then it doesn't matter how long it is since I played it, I just get it out and I'm right there.

Whereas something with a little LCD screen with lots of sub-pages, if I leave it alone for a couple of months I come back and I'm scratching my head.

So you see it as a studio tool rather than something you'd consider taking out live on the road?

Well it'd be lovely to take it out on the road. But a lot of the challenge is staying stress-free on the road, and one of the way you can alleviate stress is to have a total mirror A/B system, and in theory that's what I have now. Where if a component goes missing or blows up we can substitute it instantly for something else. So if you guys wanna give me another one then yeah!

Plus then you can do it in super Stereo.

Joe Zawinul style.




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